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A conversation with Aleksandra Cichocka

An interview

We recently talked to Aleksandra Cichocka, whose paper, "On Self-Love and Outgroup Hate: Opposite Effects of Narcissism on Prejudice via Social Dominance Orientation and Right-Wing Authoritarianism" is featured in EJP's July/August issue. Aleksandra is a lecturer in political psychology at the University of Kent. 

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Q: Hi Aleksandra, can you tell me a little about yourself and your research interests?

I am a political psychologist, so I mostly study the psychological underpinnings of political attitudes and behaviour. I got my PhD at the University of Warsaw in Poland. I come from a country with a turbulent history of war, totalitarianism, and dramatic changes in social system, so I became fascinated by factors that shape social and political attitudes. I am interested in a range of topics, including intergroup attitudes, beliefs in political conspiracy theories, ideology, and political engagement.

Q: What is your study about?

We wanted to figure out whether people's evaluations of themselves are linked to their ideological beliefs and attitudes. Starting from the classic work on authoritarian personality, this has been a major question in political psychology. A typical hypothesis would be that people who are right-wing or conservative have lower self-esteem but, actually, empirical evidence for this has been mixed. Together with Kristof Dhont and Arti Makwana, we suggested that this might be because past work did not distinguish between self-evaluations that are defensive (i.e., narcissistic, excessively positive but fragile) and secure (i.e., non-narcissistic, sometimes called ‘optimal’ or ‘genuine’ as these people are confident in their own abilities and less preoccupied with other people’s approval). Past research has also rarely considered different dimensions of right-wing ideology, such as social dominance orientation (a general desire for group-based social hierarchy) and right-wing authoritarianism (a desire for maintaining traditional social arrangements).

Our studies showed that these two dimensions are differentially related to self-evaluation. Specifically, we found that in the US, UK, and Poland, narcissistic self-evaluation predicted higher social dominance orientation, probably because narcissists like power and feel they are better than others. However, narcissistic self-evaluation was associated with lower levels of right-wing authoritarianism, probably because narcissists like to think of themselves as original and unique, and conforming to social norms and traditions does not correspond with this. Interestingly, the associations were in the opposite direction for non-narcissistic self-esteem, although they were less robust.

These findings show that the associations between self-evaluation and ideology are more complex than previously thought. They also have the potential to illuminate intergroup processes. In our studies, we also measured people’s attitudes toward members of ethnic out-groups. We found that narcissistic self-evaluation was positively associated with prejudice due to its positive association with social dominance orientation and, simultaneously, negatively associated with prejudice due to its negative association with right-wing authoritarianism. This suggests that narcissists might be particularly prejudiced towards lower-status groups, such as the unemployed, that tend to be disliked by those high in social dominance orientation. However, narcissists should be less concerned with out-groups perceived as a threat to cultural traditions or social norms.

Q: From your previous work, it seems you are quite invested in studying the interface among personality, social, and political psychology. What made you decide to study narcissism in the context of political orientations?

I have always been interested in what drives political activity. As a student, I was especially keen to understand intergroup attitudes: international conflict, violence, etc., so I studied group-level factors that can motivate intergroup hostility. One such factor is collective narcissism, which is a defensive type of in-group positivity. It is characterised by a belief in in-group greatness associated with a conviction that others do not appreciate the in-group enough. As I was trying to understand how narcissism and defensiveness might play out at the group level, I read a lot about individual narcissism. And it became clear to me that we do not know a lot about the political concomitants of narcissism, while this trait tends to have fairly destructive interpersonal consequences. In fact, we can sometimes observe this in how narcissistic politicians respond defensively to challenges or criticisms.

Yet, past work on self-esteem and political outcomes rarely considered that people’s self-evaluation can be more secure or more defensive. Understanding how this maps onto political attitudes and behaviour is theoretically relevant, as self-evaluation is at the core of one’s personality. But I think it is also practically important in terms of understanding political leaders and the public more generally. We need to be able to predict what implications any generational changes in self-evaluation, narcissism or feelings of entitlement could have for the society.

Q: Where do you see yourself in the future?

I have a great position at the University of Kent, where I run the Political Psychology Lab and an MSc programme in Political Psychology. I would like to see these grow, to get more and more people engaged in this fascinating area of research. I think it is especially important these days, when some of us really struggle to understand what is happening in the political scene.

Q: Do you have any tips or advice for young researchers?

Find your niche and stick to researching what fascinates you. Do a lot of stats and methods – this will not only advance your work but also make you useful to senior researchers who do not always have the time to keep up to speed in that department. Also, do not focus just on work – hang out with other researchers. I met most of my closest colleagues and collaborators at parties, and I came up with some of my best research ideas over drinks. For people to want to hire you, they need to not only like your work but also you as a person. Likewise, apply for jobs with people you enjoy spending time with. Being at a great institution is important, but I think having great colleagues is key. I certainly love mine!

Q: Thanks for the chat, Aleksandra!

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